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Disturbing the Universe Film Review

January 14, 2010 9:09 a.m.

Audio: KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe"

Related Story: William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

KPBS-FM Film Review: “William Kuntsler: Disturbing the Universe”
By Beth Accomando
Air date: January 14, 2010

The New York Times called the late William Kuntsler "the most hated and most loved lawyer in America." He defended everyone from civil rights activists to the Chicago 8 to the terrorist accused of bombing the World Trade Center. In the documentary “Disturbing the Universe,” Kuntsler’s daughters examine their father’s life. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando has this review.

KUNTSLER(ba).wav SOQ 3:50

(Tag:) “William Kuntsler: Disturbing the Universe” opens tomorrow (Friday) at Landmark’s Ken Cinema. You can find more of Beth’s review and post your own comments at K-P-B-S-dot-O-R-G-slash-cinema-junkie.


In the new documentary Disturbing the Universe, lawyer William Kuntsler gets cross examined by his own daughters.

Emily: Before the trial was over he would grow his hair long, experiment with
drugs and be sentenced to 4 years in jail for contempt of court.

Be listening for Beth Accomando’s review coming up on Morning Edition.

“William Kuntsler: Disturbing the Universe” opens with a home movie of two excited young girls addressing the camera.

CLIP Sarah: Now as a premiere we’ll have William Kuntsler, yes the real William Kuntsler, talk about his life. Our dad of course. Here he comes right now.
Kuntsler: All I want to say is more power to the people right on do it.

That archive footage of a crazy-haired man with his fist raised defiantly in the air and urging on a revolution is the image I remember of William Kuntsler. He typified the 60s for me. But the new documentary “Disturbing the Universe,” made by his daughters Emily and Sarah, reminds us of his complexities and contradictions.

CLIP Alan Dersowitz: It’s very, very hard to look Bill Kuntsler’s daughter in the eye
and to say I thought he was a hypocrite. It’s a very hard question but I do have to say that I sometimes think he acted inconsistently with the principles he stated and articulated.

And that’s what his daughters want to explore in their first documentary feature. They begin with a sense of pride in their father’s accomplishments.

CLIP Emily: Growing up it seemed my father was at the center of everything—Martin Luther King to Wounded Knee they asked my dad to be their lawyer.

Emily, the younger daughter, narrates the film, and her tone quickly changes.

CLIP Emily: And then we realized he was defending bad people, people accused of
rape, terrorism, organized crime, and cop shooting…

Although William Kuntsler died more than a decade ago, his daughters are still struggling to come to terms with his legacy. Some of the best moments in the film are from archive footage of the girls with their father. Sometimes they precociously interview at home with a tape recorder, other times they challenge him on local TV.

CLIP Sarah: I was wondering if you ever decided to take a case and then later did a
double take and said I shouldn’t be doing this.
Kuntsler: There have been a few times where I would want to get out of a particular case that’s true but on the other hand once you’re in it your in it.
Emily: He never gave us a straight answer

But he does give them an answer. It may not be the answer they wanted but he never avoids their questions and he never talks down to them even when they are very young and asking him complex questions. So he must have instilled in his daughters a strong intelligence, social awareness, and willingness to challenge authority – even if that authority was him. So while he might have been labeled a hypocrite for accepting some of the clients he defended, he seems to have lived up to his ideals in his private life if we are to take his daughters as any kind of proof.
Seeing the archive footage of the girls with their father makes me wonder what kind of a documentary this would have been if the adult filmmakers could have interviewed their dad now. But without such footage “Disturbing the Universe” finds itself in a kind of awkward middle ground. It’s neither a fully objective examination of Kuntsler’s achievements and ideological contradictions nor is it an intimate portrait of a father by his daughters.

A shortcoming of the film is that Emily and Sarah want this to be a personal work yet they don’t fully exploit their closeness to the subject. For instance, the filmmakers make no comment of how their father reacted to their public challenges. Was he upset? Did he scold them? Did he praise them? That’s an insight only they could provide and instead we get dry narration.

CLIP Emily: Before the trial was over he would grow his hair long, experiment with
Drugs, and be sentenced to 4 years in jail for contempt of court.

Less reliance on narration and more on the archival elements would have improved the film. But William Kuntsler is such a fascinating character and figured so prominently in so much of America’s social landscape that almost any documentary portrait would be fascinating. But this film by Kuntsler’s daughters could use a little more of dad’s passion, intensity, and flamboyance.

For KPBS, I’m Beth Accomando.